As a last resort, will Vladimir Putin go nuclear? Rose Gottemoeller, a former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, suggested he might.
Something extraordinary happened last week. Russia began to lose the war in Ukraine, or in Kremlin-speak, its “special military operation” in Ukraine. But don’t just take my word for it. “We have already lost, the rest is just a matter of time”, grumbled Igor Girkin, a far-right nationalist, in a video address to his 430,000 followers on Telegram. Girkin is a former Russian intelligence colonel, who became a commander of eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatist forces in 2014 and is arguably the most prominent voice within an increasingly loud and angry group of ultranationalist and pro-war bloggers. Many of these bloggers, who have so far been granted a public platform denied to many, have recently taken to berating the Kremlin for its failure to achieve its tactical objectives as the fighting enters its seventh month.
Across the Russian media there is generalised doom and gloom. Even among Russia’s cheerleaders there is a sense of anger and desperation. On talk shows some have simply continued with rhetorical business as usual, such as veteran pro-Kremlin politician Sergei Mironov who, appearing on an NTV chat-show on Wednesday, insisted that “Zelenskyy’s Nazi regime must be destroyed”. Others are unsure which line to take, with some guests even engaging in polemics coming close to a real debate.
Despite Putin’s total control of the media, the realisation that all is not going well in Ukraine is percolating through to the general public, and that predictions in April of a quick victory were catastrophically wrong. As was the much-promoted prophecy by the Kremlin that the only risk to Russian forces entering Odessa was from being hugged too tightly on arrival by emotional locals, overcome with love for the Russians.
So what has caused this major change of attitude towards the war?
It was the stunning success of Ukraine forces last week in Kharkiv that troubled the Kremlin so much and caused confusion in the state-controlled media. Suddenly there was the spectacle of a bedraggled army in retreat, with scenes of miserable prisoners, smashed-up Russian convoys, abandoned vehicles, scattered kit and abandoned ammunition and food. Videos showed local Ukrainians passionately cheering their victorious forces as they drove through their villages. The speed of advance of the Ukrainian forces had been impressive, as tens of thousands of liberated square miles turned into hundreds and then thousands. Over the course of the week, a handful of villages and towns liberated turned into hundreds.
The Russian General Staff had been completely fooled by the Ukrainian High Command. They had been suckered by Ukraine’s regular talk of the coming Kherson offensive in the south and had diverted their best troops from the Kharkiv region to prepare to defend the region. Once they saw the extent of the Russian troop movements, the Ukrainians made their move in the north-east to liberate the cities of Izyum, which had been a substantial Russian garrison and command centre, Kupyansk, a major transportation hub for both road and rail, and Balakliya, where thousands of Russian troops were encircled and quickly became disarrayed. According to the Ukrainians, hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed and more than 10,000 captured. Whole units were wiped out.
This loss of so many combat troops will be a major concern to the Kremlin, which continues to refuse to give any details of troop losses. But a realistic estimate can be gleaned from a leaked letter from the Russian Finance Ministry published last week, where it’s stated that as of 28 August, 361.4 billion roubles have been paid to the families of dead soldiers. As the Kremlin has promised to give 7.4 million roubles to the families of each fallen soldier, a simple calculation gives the staggering total of 48,759 confirmed dead—and this doesn’t even include those soldiers missing, presumed dead, from the pro-Russian Donbass region of Ukraine. As a rule-of-thumb, twice the number of those who die are severely injured during the course of any operation, unable to take any further part, which leads to a total of about 150,000 non-combatant Russian soldiers, approximately the total number of those gathered on the border of Ukraine just before the invasion on 24 February this year.
Even if this calculation exaggerates the true number, it clearly illustrates President Putin’s dilemma. How can he supply more soldiers for the war without turning to national mobilisation, a move which would alienate a large proportion of the population and even lead to his demise as President? Putin risks anger and possible backlash from nationalists and pro-military bloggers if he steps back, but a potentially dangerous path if he decides to go down the road of escalation. A “Catch-22” dilemma.
Living in his bubble and advised only by those who wish to give him good news, Vladimir Putin continues to insist that nothing has been lost by the war. Speaking in Vladivostok on 7 September he maintained that “we have not lost anything and will not lose anything. In terms of what we have gained, I can say that the main gain has been the strengthening of our sovereignty.” This is delusional. It’s the growing number of military bloggers, a patriotic group desperate for a Russian victory, who are assessing the conflict with a degree of objectivity. They feel badly let down by the regime’s ineptitude, its failure to prepare properly and its refusal to put the country on a war-footing, something Putin appears frightened to do. Unlike the crude and increasingly risible propagandists, whose instructions are to show that all is well and that any apparent Ukraine advance has already turned into a disastrous failure, these nationalistic bloggers are furious because the best chance to reconnect a wayward Ukraine to Mother Russia has now been lost, and the armed forces are suffering personal and material losses, along with a deep humiliation, from which it will take years to recover.
Inevitably, the Kremlin is now putting round the tired, old excuse that it is NATO which is attacking Russia and that their brave military are simply defending the Motherland. Not only does this overlook the fact that it was Russia which attacked Ukraine in the first place, but not a single NATO soldier is fighting in Ukraine. What is true, of course, is that some western countries are supplying Ukraine with weapons and training their soldiers, but to say that NATO is involved as an alliance is simply propaganda, and just an excuse for the dire performance of the Russian forces and their weapons.
As a last resort, will Vladimir Putin go nuclear? Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, Rose Gottemoeller, a former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, suggested he might. She thought the advance of the Ukrainian military, claimed by President Zelenskyy to be 6,000 square kilometres in the last week, is amazing. Asked if this could this be a turning point in the war, Gottemoeller responded that “it might”, but feared that President Putin might strike back in “unpredictable, ways, which might even include weapons of mass destruction—tactical nuclear weapons”. This could include a nuclear demonstration strike, either a single strike over the Black Sea, or a perhaps one at a Ukrainian military facility in order to strike terror, not only into the hearts of the Ukrainians, but also the global partners and allies of Ukraine. “The goal would be to terrify Ukrainians to capitulate”.
It’s now clear that having duped the Russian people, President Putin now has no good options remaining. With the urgent need to increase manpower and having exhausted the volunteer/jailbird/mercenary route, the only way to achieve this will be through national mobilisation. This would cause uproar in Russia, especially as the Kremlin continues to insist that all goals are being met. On tactical nuclear weapons, some of Putin’s supporters, particularly former President Medvedev, have warned that Russia could use nuclear weapons until there is a “total capitulation of the Kyiv regime on Russia’s conditions”. This would be a major escalation with unpredictable consequences.
But then, President Putin is fond of reminding the world that he learned a big life lesson in power politics when, as a kid, he cornered a huge rat. He recalls the time when he chased the large rodent with a stick around his dismal communal apartment building in Leningrad, now St Petersburg: “It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed out and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door on its nose.” With the war being lost, and even his own position under threat, close Kremlin-watchers are wondering whether Putin may be one who feels cornered and, having duped his nation and now without any good options, they are worried how he will respond.
There are no good options.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.